Jesus did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). He also stated, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). In the latter context, Jesus was speaking of how the strongest, most natural ties that a human being can experience—ties to mother and father, and our whole family, would be the center of the conflicts that Jesus would bring. Not even our strongest familial ties have a greater claim on our lives than our allegiance to Jesus. Jesus is not about simply remaining a part of our lives; Jesus is our life, and therefore he revolutionizes, and more importantly redeems, or rescues his disciple’s lives.
In Matthew 16, after Peter had declared Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, he went on to declare that Jesus should not and would not go to the cross. In response Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus then said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
In both Matthew 10 and 16 lurk the questions: “Who are you?” and “Who is Jesus?” The two are intimately and inseparably related. Jesus decides who you are. Jesus tells you who you are, and if you will not have Jesus tell you who you are, defining your relationships and determining your actions, then you have severed yourself from life. It means living in a world of our imagination; calling things and people what they in fact are not. In the midst of this we attempt to force people into our “world.” Some of us have experienced this from a family member or someone whom we thought was our friend. No doubt we have all done it to others at various times and in various ways. Jesus addressed the issue from the perspective of his true disciples needing to understand that they could not allow others to do this to them, and they better not try and do it with themselves and others while deluding themselves that they were faithful to Jesus.
The mature disciple discovers their identity in what Jesus has done, is doing and will continue to do for them and in them that frees them from sin. Such a person consistently rejects their claim to determine who they will be and what they will and will not do. They will say to Jesus, “I am yours, not my own; you own me; do with me what you will; give me the courage to endure the process.” Others in our lives who do not have this same agenda get really nervous and disturbed by that kind of radical remaking and submission. Of course, this describes everyone who does not have salvation. But some of them think they do have salvation.
In the name of serving God, some people live in a world of primarily their own imagination. They fundamentally misunderstand and misapply God’s word. The most dangerous, most deceitful who fall into this category do not stop using God’s word. In fact, they use it a lot. They go to church. They are often extremely faithful to attend church. They are busy doing all the things that on the surface the followers of God do. This is why Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23 that some on judgment day will be in for a very rude awakening. They will have rightly called Jesus “Lord” during their lives on earth, and they will have thought they engaged in all sorts of ministerial activity in Jesus’ name, and yet they will discover from Jesus that they were never his children. Instead, they were a law to themselves. Jesus was talking about people who would claim to be Christians, actually engage in service among God’s people, laboring side-by-side with true disciples of the Lord Jesus, just like Judas did, and yet be damned. Note that Jesus said on judgment day that he would say he never knew them. They did not lose a salvation they once possessed; they never had it.
To be lawless is to have no higher authority than your thoughts, your desires, and your will. We can operate this way all the while we go to church and are busy doing all sorts of ministerial things in the name of serving God. Frightening! Jesus declares to us that the only way to know for certain that you are not on such a path of self-deception and bogus claims to know him is that you remain in his word and obey it (Matt. 7:24-26; John 8:31-32).
This is all about denying yourself, not pandering to yourself. It is about serving others, not looking to be served. It is not about self-fulfillment, as that is defined by us or the culture in which we live, but it is about self-denial. It is not wondering why someone is failing to do what you want them to do for you, but getting busy asking, “What do others need from me today?” and then by a mind filled with God’s word and energized by true prayer getting busy meeting those needs. It requires sacrifice. This roots us out of ourselves and our self-absorption. Since we are all sinners, we are prone to self-absorption. Those of us who live in America where advancing out of elementary school is celebrated are especially prone to self-absorbed pandering.
Are you looking to serve or be served? Are you wondering why so and so did not speak to you, or are you pursuing a relationship with that person based on forthright honesty, loving trust and sacrificial service? Is God’s word going to define those latter terms for you? Are you willing to have others challenge you with something they perceive as wrong? Are you willing to act courageously and humbly to challenge others to greater Christ-like obedience? Or, are you and your relationships marked by carving out space for your sin and doing the same for others? Are you letting Jesus tell you how he will use you and what will define your life, or do you keep insisting on doing your own thing and expecting Jesus to bless it?
Sacrifice, service, a painful cross, the denial of self—this is the way of Christian discipleship. Only those on that pathway find life. We can self-identify as Christians and yet turn the ministries of the church, the gifts of the Spirit and “spiritual disciplines” into a mechanism for self-absorption and self-fulfillment. We end up with a form of godliness, but we deny its power, because it is not a life of biblical holiness where God’s sanctifying, cleansing power is on display.
True disciples of the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul says, are “always of good courage” (2Cor. 5:6). They are a breath of fresh air, energized, thinking, working, serving, laughing and finding great joy in God’s creation, crying with the broken-hearted, working to bind up their wounds, in order to get them back in the fight; a fight worth fighting, a fight that has already been won. It is why we can endure the painful process of purification from sin, and why God’s children, his true disciples, will.